"Except for the Yomiuri newspaper, it wasn't played up in the media and probably for this reason didn't have much of an impact on society. But even though things are just as potentially dangerous as before, in my view for people not to take in the information poses a huge problem."
Speaking to Shukan Shincho (March 1), associate professor Tetsuo Sawada of Tokyo Institute of Technology was referring to the heavy snowfall that struck East Japan on Jan 22. For four days, from the 23rd to the 26th, and again on Feb 1 and 2, Tokyo's demand for power surged, spurring utility firm Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) to issue urgent requests for surplus power -- totaling 3 million kilowatts from utilities in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Chubu and Kansai and a small number of minor players able to sell back their surplus -- thereby barely avoiding overload.
So strained was the demand that the capital's power utility felt obliged to disenable some of the elevators at its corporate headquarters.
At one point, total power demand reached 49.6 billion kilowatts, just short of the maximum capacity of 50 billion.
Needless to say, before the Fukushima catastrophe in March 2011 that precipitated shutdown of most of the country's nuclear power plants, this would not have been a problem.
As demand soared, problems cropped up in all kinds of unexpected places. According to a TEPCO spokesperson, on Jan 23, low temperatures led to anticipation for more hydroelectric power from dams. These dams, however, require additional power to pump water to the spillway that feeds the generators, and in the end turned out to be useless.
What's more, while the unusually heavy snowfall -- said to be in the category of perhaps one that occurs perhaps every two or three decades -- may have caused people to turn up the heat on their electric blankets or kotatsu (table with a foot warmer built into its underside), but another worrisome cause for the close shave was the failure to anticipate how renewable or sustainable forms of energy can be affected by a major snowfall.
Over the past several summers, power demand in Tokyo survived a few close shaves, requiring the utility to scramble for supplementary power. But winter poses a different set of problems.
"On a sunny day, our company is able to generate some 8 million kilowatts from solar energy farms -- equivalent to 15% of the total peak demand," the TEPCO spokesperson told the magazine. "The problem was, snow remained piled up on the solar panels and didn't melt for several days, so they couldn't generate any electricity. Then we put hydroelectric stations on full operation, but by the next day their water was depleted, and that left us needing to buy power from other companies.
"To make matters worse, two thermal generators in Ibaraki and Fukushima prefectures malfunctioned at the worst possible time," he added.
Despite massive outlays to diversify power sources in the wake of the shutdowns of the country's nuclear plants, results have only been mixed at best, and costs continue to rise past the initially planned budget.
Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan is said to have worked out the new system for solar energy supply at the time with SoftBank head Masayoshi Son. Professor Tadashi Narabayashi of Hokkaido University referred to it as "the worst plan in the world."
"Initially Son was counting on earning 42 yen per kilowatt hour," Narabayashi is quoted as saying. "Now it's down to 28 yen, but in other world markets it's already 10 yen or less. Inexpensive panels from China have appeared, and the costs to operators continue to go down. So it's great for investors but disadvantageous to the public who must bear the costs."
While Tokyo's power supply remains at risk, the aforementioned Prof Sawada had praise for the UK, which has diversified its own power sources through well balanced use of nuclear (at 21%, of the total); natural gas (30%); coal (23%); petroleum (1%); hydroelectric power (2%); and renewable types of energy (24%). This mixture gives the system a hedge should the supply of an imported energy source be interrupted.
"Before the 2011 earthquake, the breakdown of Japan's energy sources was quite similar to Britain's, the exception being the latter's low costs for reusable energy," Sawada noted.© Japan Today